IMAGE: Matt Grigsby
Here he comes. It’s been seven years since Morrissey played Portland, but now the Oscar Wilde-quoting, gladioli-throwing former Smiths frontman is returning to our town in support of his ninth solo album, last winter’s Years of Refusal, and recent B-sides collection Swords. Whether you’re a Moz neophyte or a longtime superfan who carries a scrap of one of his shirts in your wallet, we’ve got a primer on the man behind the pompadour to prepare you for Monday night’s performance at the Roseland.
Morrissey is worshipped like few other musical icons. Despite his well-guarded personal life, his fans feel like they know him, which earns him a sort of reverent fanaticism. There’s even a book about him called Saint Morrissey. (Even those who claim Elvis is still alive don’t use holy qualifiers—Presley may be the king, but “saint” trumps royalty!) But, strangely, Moz sings in a stately croon that went out of style almost 50 years ago. His fashion sense and stylistic influences can seem even older than that. And his die-hard supporters are a real band of outsiders: rockabilly Mexican boys from California’s Inland Empire; animal-rights activists; pale, effete boys and girls who are ready to rip his clothes off; bespectacled rock nerds. So, what is it about the Mancunian, born Steven Patrick Morrissey, that has made him such a vital and venerated force in music for over 20 years? We’ve broken it down into six easy pieces for you.
The biting wit:
Critics think of Morrissey as a miserablist, but they’re missing the humor inherent in his sharp-tongued prose. Sure, he can wallow in disappointment with the best of them. He can be overtly political. And few people have written as deftly about dying for romantic love as he has (“If a double-decker bus crashes into us/ To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die,” he sang on “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”). But he isn’t all Meat Is Murder polemics or “Unlovable” self-pity. How can anyone who wrote the line “Standing at the urinal/ He thinks he’s got the whole world in his hands” (from “The Boy Racer”) be accused of humorlessness?
An unselfconscious crooner, Morrissey is most associated with the louche, theatrical delivery of songs like “The Last of the Famous International Playboys,” but when the occasion calls for it, his iconic baritone can be hauntingly subdued (see: the Smiths’ “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want”). His vocals, like his Cary Grant looks, are aging well, and both his rich, resonant low tones and his hiccupping falsetto remain in good shape and unmistakably Morrissey.
The consummate collaborator:
While Morrissey may seem like the definition of a solo star, his music has always been the product of generous (and well-chosen) collaborations. After the breakup of the Smiths, critics wondered if Morrissey would find another partner like Johnny Marr to balance the acidity of his lyrics and the grandeur of his delivery with such winningly jangly melodies. But Moz persevered, working with celebrated musicians like the Durutti Column’s Vini Reilly (who arranged much of Viva Hate) and Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson (who produced Your Arsenal). And his longest partnerships since the Marr heyday have been with his relatively unknown but simpatico guitarists Alain Whyte and Boz Boorer, with whom he’s co-written many of his songs since 1992.
The ambiguous sexuality:
Aside from being an excellent marketing tactic that keeps Morrissey shrouded in hard-to-come-by rock-star mystique, his vague sexual preferences have made him a cipher for his audience. Boys and girls alike can crush on him. Macho Latino teens can worship him without reproach. Wary teenagers confused about their own sexuality can look up to him. He can be whatever you want him to be—gay, straight, asexual—while maintaining an enviable private life in the public sphere.
The “outsider” persona:
Morrissey has always been the “outsiders’ outsider” (a phrase he himself used in an 1999 interview with The Times magazine), and as such, the outcasts and outliers of the world feel a great affinity for him. From his gay followers to his huge Mexican-American fanbase, Morrissey speaks eloquently for those who often don’t have much of a voice in popular culture. And for that, his fans love him with a very personal, almost religious fervor.
Give or take a cardigan, little about Morrissey’s style has changed over the past 20-plus years. Yes, he’s matured, but the laughably long album titles and winking self-deprecation remain. Morrissey has always carved out an original niche. And by ascribing to no particular genre, he has become one himself. Which is, after all, the best explanation for his enduring popularity.
SEE HIM: Morrissey plays the Roseland Theater on Monday, Nov. 30. 8 pm. $49.50. All ages.